Top 10 Films of 2010

     December 31, 2010

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I won’t deny the vanity of year-end lists.  Most professional critics will sit through over 100 new films per year and the year-end list is a badge of honor that says, “These are the films I appreciated the most.  Behold.”  Despite the vanity, I continue to think that the year-end Top 10 provides a valuable service to the average moviegoer.  Most folks don’t have the time, cash, or inclination to see every movie released in a given year and a Top 10 list says, “Here are the must-see films from the past 365 days.  Netflix them or something.”  I didn’t get to see every film that could have potentially made this list, but I feel confident in my choices.  So forgive my indulgence and hit the jump for my Top 10 films of 2010.

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10. INSIDE JOB

Knowledge is power and financial institutions have retained their power in part because it’s difficult to understand how they brought the American economy to its knees.  Controversial issues like the gay marriage or abortion are fairly simply to grasp, but most folks don’t know the difference between a credit-default swap and a collateralized debt obligation.  Inside Job provides not only the best way to understand what happened to our financial system, but the problems that continue to plague it.  The documentary is so smart and well-constructed that you’ll forget to be consumed by white-hot rage and unbearable sadness until after you leave the theater.

9. THE FIGHTER

There’s nothing quite like a strong ensemble piece.  While the story of real-life boxer “Irish” Mickey Ward could have easily devolved into maudlin sentiment, writer-director David O. Russell keeps the film gritty, heartfelt, and surprisingly funny.  Christian Bale gives a phenomenal performance as Dicky Eklund, Mickey’s brother, trainer, and perpetual fuck-up.  Melissa Leo and Amy Adams also turn in strong supporting work and credit is due to Mark Wahlberg for understanding that even though he’s the lead character, he’s part of an ensemble and doesn’t need to over-act or match the intensity of his co-stars.  The Fighter not only provides an honest, unsentimental take on the strengths and weaknesses of families, but also made me want my own Greek chorus of big-haired harpy sisters.

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8. THE KING’S SPEECH

In terms of Best Cinematic Moments of 2010 (don’t worry, I’m not making another list this year), not much comes close to the finale of The King’s Speech.  Hearing King Edward VI (Colin Firth) triumphantly deliver a rousing speech to his nation in the face of imminent war is the culmination of a film that is humorous, warm, and uplifting.  After giving a tremendous performance last year in A Single Man, Firth shows once again that he’s a force to be reckoned with as he not only perfects a convincing stammer, but never makes Edward VI a pitiable figure.  “Bertie” is at times unlikable, prickly, and arrogant, but it all comes from a real, relatable place that keeps you on the character’s side.  Bolstered by a strong script and a wonderful supporting performance from Geoffrey Rush, director Tom Hooper delivers a feel-great film that never felt sappy.

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7. THE SOCIAL NETWORK

“Do I have your attention?”  And thus began one of the greatest monologues/exchanges of the past decade, let alone 2010.  Those who went in to The Social Network looking for a treatise on the nature of the Internet and social networking in the 21st century were most likely sorely disappointed (they should have gone to see Catfish instead).  Instead, director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin used the tale of Facebook’s creation to explore themes of success, betrayal, ownership, friendship, and loss.  While we can debate to death if Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg is factually accurate, it’s undeniable that the performance itself was witty, nefarious, pathetic, angry, and utterly captivating.  The Social Network doesn’t just grasp the Zeitgeist while simultaneously exploring universal themes in a thought-provoking manner.  It also shows Fincher and Sorkin operating at the top of their game as Eisenberg proves he’s one of the best young actors working today.  “Do I have your attention?”  Absolutely.

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6. SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD

I’m still amazed that this film managed to meet my unfairly high level of expectations.  It was one of my favorite directors helming an adaptation of one of my favorite comics.  And yet somehow Edgar Wright managed to not only blow my mind with Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, he made a film that gets better every time I see it.  It takes a certain kind of mad genius to create a hilarious movie that brilliantly weaves in video game tropes while maturely handling the emotional baggage that break-ups leave in their wake.  It’s an honest film that challenges the cinematic language and visual effects we’ve come to expect from Hollywood films.  It deserves millions of points and coins and will find an extra life on home video.

5. INCEPTION

Christopher Nolan’s Inception is blockbuster moviemaking at its finest and I’m so happy that people actually went to see it.  Studios aren’t going to stop with big-budget fare based on established properties any time soon, so it’s good to know that at least Warner Bros. had the courage to give a trusted filmmaker a ridiculous amount of money so that he could deliver a movie that doesn’t lend itself easily to a one-line synopsis.  When the film was first announced, I derisively laughed at the cryptic logline about “being set in the architecture of the mind,” but that actually turned out to be a fair description.  Whether you were marveling at the zero-gravity fight scene, arguing how much of the film was actually a dream, or just waiting for that damn top to fall over, Inception burrowed into your mind and refused to leave.

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4. HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON

How to Train Your Dragon had me soaring from start to finish.  The film is painfully funny, the voice acting is charming, and the relationship between Hiccup and his dragon Toothless warmed my cold, dead critic heart.  And while everyone was ooh-ing and aah-ing over Avatar‘s 3D, How to Train Your Dragon easily bested James Cameron’s film when it came to taking flight.  While I’m not the biggest fan of 3D, watching Hiccup and Tootheless take flight was one of the best moments I had in a theater this year.  The ending is particularly bold for a family film, but it works because How to Train Your Dragon never hits a false note.

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3. BLACK SWAN

Darren Aronofsky continues to be one of the best filmmakers working today with his haunting meditation on the sacrifice of health, identity, and sanity for the sake of art.  The film manages to feel both like a classic 70s psychological horror film and a fresh take on the genre by brilliantly utilizing a handheld camera that dips, dives, and dances with the actors.  Natalie Portman’s transformation is stunning as we see the fragile, delicate Nina mentally fall apart.  Her performance and the film that are tragic, beautiful, and compelling.

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2. TRUE GRIT

I had such high hopes for a straight-up Western from the Coen Brothers and they didn’t disappoint in the slightest.  True Grit is wickedly funny and dialogue that felt muddled in the original John Wayne adaptation became snappy, acerbic, and memorable in the Coens’ capable hands.  They have once again shown their mastery of tone as they effortlessly move from deadpan humor, cold retribution, buffoonery, pulse-pounding action, and everything in between.  The film kicks off with a biblical proverb, ends with the sad line, “Time just gets away from us,” and yet absolutely kills with Jeff Bridges aptly noting of his bungled plan, “That did not pan out.”  The Coen Brothers have come out with four films in the last four years and each one has landed on my Top 10.  Their greatness isn’t surprising, but it’s always appreciated.

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1. EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP

What is art?  Who should be allowed to create it?  Who owns it?  What is the purpose of art?  Banksy’s magnificent documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop asks these questions but never in a pretentious or dull manner.  The mysterious street artist found not only a way to tell the story of his world and the other street artists who inhabit it, but found a fascinating star in Thierry Guetta, a bizarre Frenchman who started out as the documenter and ended being the subject.  The film is a slip-and-slide of a Möbius strip as it turns the camera on Guetta and we gain a better appreciation of good street art when compared with Guetta’s derivative, brain-dead product that still ends up making Guetta (who takes the name “Mr. Brainwash”) a fortune.  But does good art matter if you have collectors leaving it in their closets or the unwashed masses shelling out hundreds of dollars for just another variation on celebrity + Marilyn Monroe design?  Banksy asks all of these questions but does so in a fun, light-hearted matter that not only keeps his mystique alive, but enhances it without being self-congratulatory.

Exit Through the Gift Shop is one of the best works of art about art ever made and it’s my choice for the best film of 2010.

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order): Blue Valentine, Easy A, Kick-Ass, A Prophet, Shutter Island

Monday: Top 10 Posters of 2010

Tuesday: Top 10 Trailers of 2010

Wednesday: Best Performances, Directors, and Other Miscellany of 2010

Thursday: Worst 5 Films of 2010

Friday: Top 10 Films of 2010

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